A Short Story
I'm lying in bed, comfortable after a long, sensuous night's sleep. Finally, I've moved to a place I can call home for the long run. I hate moving, and it makes me feel so secure to know that this spot can suit my needs forever. It took me long enough to get here. And I'm getting my first visitors today, Paul and Jill, each of whom had been my roommate at one time.
Paul and I dormed together at Miami State University, which we attended because we were both underachievers in high school. My parents never stressed education; in a Puerto Rican household, it was more important for boys to be butch than smart. I was neither; but I was cute, and that bought me a lot. My mother's undying love, for one; also, my three older brothers, all policemen today, fighting my battles for me, so that I could walk, or rather swish, the streets safely. That was very important in the South Bronx; I might not have made it to the ripe age of forty five if it hadn't been for my brothers.
Paul's parents, on the other hand, had stressed education and self-improvement. He was from an upper middle-class Westchester family, and rebelled by refusing to study. Paul is impeccably clothed; overly mannered; obsessed with design and decor; and married to the homeliest woman I've ever seen. Beth is a lovely person, and I hate to be so crass, but truly, I can't see how he even shares a bed with her, much less has sex. Then again, maybe he doesn't; she's working on her third breakdown in the eighteen years they've been married. One thing I'm sure of, though. Paul has never slept with a man. If he had, it would have been me; and even if not, he would have told me immediately, pointing out how superior the man he'd been with was compared to my tricks. I sense that if he opened his closet door once, even a tiny bit, he'd come flying out in a boa and high heels, both tasteful.
Jill is another story. The fat girl from the poor family, she finally made good. All her life she was overweight: in fact, five years ago, I had a massive argument with her about it, and we didn't speak for a long time. Such a waste, but no sense dwelling on it now. In fact, I believe that my freak-out was the catalyst that got her to have her stomach stapled. I never thought I'd feel embarrassed walking the streets with Jill, but at one point I began to. My head was in such a different place at the time. I told her she was hideous: yes, that's the exact word I used, and that she had no self-respect. She flipped, didn't even see this coming. I'm the sort of person who holds and holds and holds things and finally, when I let them out, there's no editing, it's just all there, take it or leave it. To her credit, she left it. Sure, she laid a guilt-trip on me, calling for two weeks afterwards, trying to patch it up, giving me the "how could you do this to me" routine. But when she quit on me, she quit big. I mean, I had to grovel to get her friendship back last year. And it was worth it.
It wasn't only the weight that got me with Jill. Her lack of self respect, the "I'm not worthy" routine, that's what I really couldn't take. Jill had two relationships up until the time of our falling out. The first was with a married drug dealer who would come over to fuck but wouldn't be seen in public with her; this lasted twelve years, part of which time we were roommates. The second guy was a single, dreadlocked musician who hadn't washed for years, had few teeth, also wouldn't be seen outdoors with her, and at last count, had "borrowed" thirteen hundred dollars. What killed me was that she actually considered these scum to be boyfriends. When I would hear her talk about "the guy I'm dating" I would just go wild. But today, Jill is an acceptable size, has a great job, and is actually dating a single, sanitary man who claims to be in love with her. To my knowledge, he hasn't borrowed any money yet.
You may understand that I'm not a simple person if you judge me by my friends. And if you look at my love relationships, you may wonder why I was never committed to an insane asylum. Actually, I almost was. In my senior year of college, when I was just coming out, I had a breakdown that sent me catatonic for six months. I just wouldn't talk. I dropped out of school, and only got my degree three years ago, at a college reunion. I had been big stuff on campus: president of the student council, student/faculty panel moderator, and general Mr. Popularity. But I had to be literally carted off campus, by my parents who had to come pick me up, a skinny, silent basket of nerves. My poor parents, for whom this confirmed their suspicion of higher education. I never returned to campus until the reunion, and then they conferred an honorary degree on me.
It's about time I admit the real reason for my breakdown. This is tough; I've never spoken of it before. But there isn't much time to waste, so here goes: I was having an affair with my English professor, a handsome, married, thirty-year-old jock: Russ Thayer. I have no compunction about naming him now, because he'll probably never know and even if he does I don't care anymore; he certainly can't hurt me now. I was totally in love with him, and he was totally screwing around with me. In the middle of senior year, I began asking him how we could be together when I finished school. He looked at me as if I had three heads and said we couldn't. One word led to the next, things got heated, he called me a silly faggot and I fled in tears. The next day, cool, blond and collected, Russ visited me and said, as he shook me by my shirt, that if I ever divulged our relationship to anyone on campus, he would be on the next plane to New York to tell my parents, in full detail, about the sexual effeminacy of their son. He reminded me that he was independently wealthy, and didn't really need this job; he also reminded me that he wasn't much in love with his wife, and if his marriage broke up over this, so much the better. In other words, I was the loser no matter what came of it. Thus, I stopped talking.
But enough about all that. I hear Jill's loud voice thundering down the corridor, so I know she's arrived; the whole world has to know when she's arriving somewhere.
"Luis, honey, how are you?" Jill says, before she's even fully in the room.
"Fine, considering everything. They finally put me in a private room, and the view is beautiful. The drugs are great, too."
"Look, I brought you a surprise. A Discman, and a couple of CDs, from your apartment," Jill says.
"Wow, this is great. I can't wait to listen to 'Back to Broadway,' though I don't think it's as good as 'The Broadway Album.' You know, I never thought about that: 'The Broadway Album' was made before CDs were around. Should we call it 'The Broadway Album' or 'The Broadway CD?'"
"Oh, Luis, leave it to you. And they say that morphine is supposed to dull you?"
"I'm on a pretty low dose. But you see, Jill? When I was young, everyone thought I was dumb just because I was cute, and it stuck. I got better as I got older, didn't I?"
"I never thought you were dumb. A little ditzy, maybe, but dumb, no."
"Well, in any case, where is Paul? I thought he was staying at your house last night when he got into town. I figured you two would be coming together."
"Well, we did," says Jill, and she looks guilty. Jill hasn't got the face for poker. "He's downstairs, he'll be up in a few minutes."
"Why is he downstairs?" I ask, knowing something's up.
"Well, look, Luis, I don't know how to tell you this, so let me just say it. Joe is with him."
"Joe?" I ask, not initially realizing whom she means. Then I know. "Joe Romano? Are you kidding?" My heart starts to race, and I wonder if it can kill me, at this stage, to have such a shock.
"No, I'm not. You know Joe's been asking about you all along. Well, Paul called him from Norfolk before he came, and said that you two should try to see each other. You know, get things resolved."
"Jeez, Jill, how can you do this to me? I mean, Joe and I haven't even spoken for three years. Who the fuck are you, or Paul, to tell me what to get resolved?"
"Luis, no one's telling you what to do. Joe agreed that you two should see each other, but he wouldn't come up without getting your okay."
"And what is Paul doing calling up Joe? I mean, they only met twice. Is Paul setting up Joe for his first gay fling? I'll bet he'd love that. My ex-boyfriend: that would give him a buzz, keep the old college competition going."
"Paul isn't going after Joe. Luis, everybody knows that you and Joe love each other, regardless of all that's happened, and it wouldn't be right for you never to speak again."
"Jill, for one thing, I don't know what got into him. I mean, I sent him five cards for his fortieth birthday. He never got in touch. And another thing: I look like shit. I'm skinny, I've lost a lot of my hair. I don't want him to see me like this."
"Luis, it's up to you. I told Paul that I'd come up and see what you thought, then I'd go and let them know. There's no pressure."
"This is crazy. How can you say there's no pressure when Joe Romano is downstairs, the only man I was ever really in love with. No matter what I do, honey, I assure you, there's pressure."
"So, take your time, think about it," Jill tells me.
"I intend to, and I need to do it alone. Why don't you go downstairs, kill some time, let me think. In an hour send Paul up, alone. I'll know by then. All right, honey? I'm not mad, I'm just confused, all right?" I know that unless I say I'm not mad she'll start crying. Every time Jill leaves me these days she's afraid it's for the last time, so she's real careful about keeping things right.
"Okay, sweetheart. I'll send Paul back in an hour."
"And don't watch the clock too much. Send him back in a Puerto Rican hour," I say, knowing that if I don't, he'll be there in precisely sixty minutes. Jill is a pain in the ass about time. I've thought about Joe a number of times during my illness; I just never figured I'd see him again. Worse, I never thought I'd have to choose whether or not to see him again. Wait till I get my hands on Paul Bunkley, the old washwoman.
I'd met Joe at work. When I first got promoted into Sales, fifteen years ago, I worked as his assistant. He taught me the job, and, more important, the politics. Although Joe was twenty eight at the time, he had just come out, and was still shaky about it. In reality, Joe wanted a picket fence in Long Island with two or three kids. It was just the wife part he couldn't seem to manage.
I fell blindly in love with him. Joe was not the most handsome man I'd ever been with, but certainly the most charming: intelligent, devilish and sexy. We bounced off the walls in the bedroom, and I had been rather reserved prior to that. Joe was a natural, and he found sex in everything: food, cars, parties, bathrooms, outdoors, even the office. We worked a Saturday once and he fucked me on the vice-president's desk.
The last time I saw Joe was at a barbecue at his house. He had hosted it especially so that I could introduce my lover-of-the-moment, Mitch, to our mutual friends. I had hyped this guy to Joe, mainly out of jealousy, since Joe had been happily settled in with Steve for two years. Joe was still talking about having a child, artificial insemination with some woman. Steve looked as if he'd make a good mother. I got on Joe about being too old to be a daddy, and the infamous quips began. He always won, of course, but the game was worth playing: as long as he dished me, I knew he still cared.
Mitch and I had met over a chat line. We had sex, eleven dates, a honeymoon in Greece, a barbecue at Joe's, then a breakup: all in the course of seven weeks. I was so embarrassed about our breakup, which came the day after Joe's party, that I didn't call him for months. I know Joe: that Sicilian pride and temper caught hold of him when I didn't at least say thank you for the barbecue. The more time passed, the more I knew that if I didn't call him, I wasn't going to patch this up. I never did. I tried reconciliation, four months later, by sending him birthday cards, but he never responded. He knew it was a cop-out, and really, so did I.
Jesus, I can't even die in peace. I mean, I'm not in pain, considering I have Kaposi's sarcoma in the lungs, and difficulty breathing: the morphine takes care of that. But now this mental torture. I had accepted that I'd never see Joe again. Why did he have to come? He still loves me, I know it; I never really knew why he broke up with me in the first place. I always figured it was because I wasn't smart enough, or because I was Puerto Rican. Or maybe I was too effeminate. Why am I still thinking about this? Because of Paul, and Jill. No, that's unfair. I'm sure Joe wanted to see me all along. I think he loved me all the time. What the hell am I thinking? The pain is starting to surface. I can feel it coming, and at first, it really isn't pain, it's just an awareness that something is happening, that there's a cloudy feeling in my chest and throat. I'm getting confused. Oh Jesus I don't want to see Joe but can I really say no? I mean I really do want to see him. Shit.
No, I won't let him see me like this, now that I've lost so much of my black wavy hair he used to admire and fondle. And my face finally aged: I held on to my boyish looks up to two months ago, but then lines and bags and valleys raced in. And I'm grey, that's my color. And skinny, with a bloated stomach. No, Joe is out of the question.
I'm ringing the bell for the nurse. She'll show up shortly; in the private rooms at Lenox Hill Hospital the service is great.
"Well, Luis, how are you today?" She's just come on shift, and full of efficient good humor.
"Okay, honey, but I'm starting to feel some pain."
"Let me see your charts. Yes, that seems right. Matter of fact, you're on a four hour schedule, and it's close to five since you've had your dose. Let me get your medicine, I'll be right back.
She is. Like a flash, or I'm losing sense of time, which I believe is true, also. Amazing how the pain takes me so quickly, when it finally surfaces. If I don't move it doesn't seem so bad. Why does everyone believe that not moving helps pain? Maybe if I move around it would be better. I wonder if they'll up my dose soon. Maybe I'll be a total zombie at the end. I don't care; I hope I am, I don't want to know what's happening. The nurse injects me, I relax, anticipating the magic that, like a sorcerer, the drug will conjure.
I think I fall asleep, beautiful, the only sensation of physical pleasure I have anymore, but I open my eyes and Paul is in the room. Overdressed as usual, but otherwise looking good. I catch the pity in his glance right before he realizes I'm awake.
"Luis, how are you, old man," he says as he leans over to kiss me.
"Paul, why did you come? I must be close to the end, or you're listening to that old lady Jill."
"For once, will you shut up and let me do the talking. Jesus Christ, nothings stops that mouth, does it?" Paul asks.
"How's Beth and the kids?" I ask, knowing that pictures will magically appear from Paul's wallet any moment. He does not disappoint.
"They all send their regards, but especially the baby, Bethnne. She always talks about Uncle Luis, Uncle Luis."
"Of course. Children know class when they see it. Now what the hell are you doing calling Joe?"
"Gee, get right to the point, why don't you? All right, I'll be direct also: I called him because I think the both of you have been pig headed for long enough; because I liked him very much both times I met him; because I think he's the person who's gotten closest to you since college days; and I'd like to build a friendship with him after you're gone. We've been, I think, the two closest people to you in life. Is that plain enough for you, you old queen?"
"Quite, and I still don't like it. Listen, I've got a few things to say, and I want to get them out before I doze off, which I feel like I'm going to do any second. First, thanks for coming. Your timing is good, and if you hadn't come on your own I probably would have been calling you in the next few days. Better that you're here while I still make sense. Second, I can't see Joe. At least not today. I'll think about it, I may see him in a couple of days, but you can't send him up here. Tell him thanks, but I'm just too self-conscious about the way I look. He'll believe that."
"Do you mean that?" Paul asks. "I mean, that you might see him?"
"I don't know," I answer, "but tell him that anyway. Don't make him feel bad. Now listen, I know we haven't had a chance to talk, but I'm fading right now. Come back for the evening visiting hours, and come alone. No Jill, nobody, and we'll catch up. I have things to tell you, lots of them. But I'm not up to it right now, okay?"
"Sure, Luis, I understand," Paul says. "How about six o'clock?"
"Great. You're the best. Love you," I say, and Paul pecks me on the cheek again and leaves.
I can't wait to sleep; I feel so good now. For months, I refused to feel good, thinking that if I let myself enjoy life, I wouldn't be able to deal with dying; that I had to be miserable to be prepared. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was in Central Park on a fall day, and it was so beautiful that I felt great, in spite of myself, and I decided that I'd enjoy everything precisely because I was going to die soon.
As for Joe, I won't see him again. But it doesn't matter now, because I'll always have him and he'll always have me. I know that now. If he ever really has a child, I'll reincarnate as that child, and I'll love him and torture him like he's never known. Even if he doesn't, I'll reach him through someone else. He'll know it's me, and he'll hate it and he'll love it. I look forward to this. He should have known better, to think he could escape me. For years he gave me reason to continue; now, finally, he makes me ready to go. Won't be long now, Joe; just you wait. The best is yet to come.
Ronald C. Russo is a freelance writer in New York City.
Back to the June 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.